Book chapter

Religious Regulation in Iran (2019)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics

Abstract

The history of religious minority politics and rights in Iran dates back to the early periods of the ancient Persian Empire. With the passage of time, expansion of the empire led to increased religious pluralism that necessitated official religious tolerance and accommodation. With the adoption of Shi'a Islam as the official religion of the country at the outset of the 16th century, which was largely motivated by the monarchs' search for greater political legitimacy, Shi'ism was gradually linked to Persian monarchism and was effectively integrated into the Persian national identity and values. The growing influence of Shi'ism empowered the Shi'a clerical establishment that effectively sought exclusionary and discriminatory policies toward religious and sectarian minorities. With the establishment of the Islamic Republic in the aftermath of the revolution in the late 1970s, religious minority politics in Iran gained a more complex and nuanced dimension that facilitated Shi'a dominance and ushered in increasingly exclusionary and discriminatory governmental policies that have undermined religious and sectarian minority rights. This article surveys the history of religious pluralism and regulation in pre-Islamic Persia as well as pre-revolutionary Iran, and examines the legal and practical underpinnings of religious regulation in the Islamic Republic. While Islam does account for certain exclusive rights for Muslims in an Islamic state, it explicitly rejects discrimination against the Peoples of the Book (ahl-al Kitab). To a large extent, the current discriminatory practices against religious and sectarian minorities in Iran are rooted in the regime's advocacy for sectarian exclusivity and political self-interests, which have very little to do with the Islamic worldview.